“You seem to have started with the final act, my dear” Lucian Freud is said to have remarked on seeing Damian Hirst’s ‘A Thousand Years’ (1990) which he made a year after leaving Goldsmiths College of Art.
This artwork consists of two joined glass vitrines in which a life and death cycle is being played out. In one vitrine, maggots hatch into bluebottles, which then fly around to arrive in the adjacent vitrine where they are dispatched by an insect-o-cute machine after having had their last meal on the head of a rotting cow. It is a view of a life devoid of love or compassion and in its chilling intensity, a major work of 20th Century art.
Hirst followed this up with probably his best-known work ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991). When it was first exhibited in Charles Saatchi’s large white gallery space, this iconic piece consisting of a shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde solution was a major statement from the leader of the newly christened Young British Artists. The version on display at the Tate Gallery retrospective is a chance to see the revised version remade after the demise of the original which had been poorly preserved. With these two works Damien Hirst’s reputation as a major artist was sealed. He was an artist who would deal with the biggest subjects of them all as Mortality and Death became his stock in trade. As if to compound that, an anagram of his name reads ‘Is Mr Death in’.
The retrospective of Hirst’s work currently at the Tate Gallery starts innocently enough, with work done as a student in a variety of Arte Povera, Conceptual and Minimalist styles. His very first dot painting is here, an expressionist forerunner to the later precisely executed dot paintings that would became his signature style. Here to is the first Medicine Cabinet, effectively a glass fronted cabinet containing the medicines that people fondly hope will either cure them or at least keep them alive. Hirst stall is beginning to be laid out – the dot paintings, the medical cabinets, the animals preserved in tanks of formaldehyde and multiple variations of those themes. As an artist Damien is looking to the example of Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art for validation of the ‘ready made’ as art, to Andy Warhol the Pop artist, for his minimal aesthetic and factory production line methods and to Jeff Koons the one time commodities trader, who elevated Kitsch to the level of Fine Art.
Damien Hirst is mostly known for his Dot paintings. To date, Damien, or rather his assistants, have painted 1,500 paintings, not counting the prints and there is rumoured to be a million dot painting in progress that is expected to take many years to complete. The debate about the use of assistants will go on but perhaps it would be more honest to acknowledge the names of the artists, fabricators and craftsmen and what better place would have been than at the end of this revealing exhibition.
There are lots of dot paintings in this show, and lots of medicine cabinets where one each would have done. Hirst is clearly satisfying a demand for his work through serial reproduction. Ideas are mined endlessly and not necessarily to their benefit. Some themes are better than others. ‘Lullaby, the Seasons’ 2002 is one of his successes. It consists of a number of minimal highly polished cabinets filled with lines of pills, which have a very seductive yet sinister appeal. However the number of works on show with cigarette ends is just banal and the steel cabinets with surgical equipment obviously bought from a medical supply catalogue show the weakness of some of his ideas. As an installation artist, he is not convincing in his handling of space and the ‘In and out of love ‘ butterfly room where butterflies are raised in order to be stuck on wet canvases and the large scale ‘Pharmacy’ (1992) do not convince.
As the show progresses, the work becomes weaker and more embarrassing and the hovering beach ball entitled ‘Loving in a world of desire ‘ (1996) must take the prize for the worst work in the show although it runs a close second to “Crematorium’ (1996) an enormous ashtray of cigarette buts and ash. The cabinets, now platinum and gold are filled with artificial diamonds in a seeming celebration of footballers wives ‘bling ‘mentality. The dead butterfly’s wings are now artfully arranges by his assistants into mock stained glass windows and tedious canvases with portentous titles such as ‘ I Am Become Death , Shatterer of Worlds ‘(2006) when in fact it is only an artfully arranged decoration possibly for the Middle East market. Yet more fag- ends appear and this time there is a small shark in a stylish black tank. To complete the exhibition the final room, displays a white on white spot painting that resembles a design for a department store duvet cover and a pathetic white stuffed dove in a tank of formaldehyde solution that attempts to express some sort of maudlin religiosity. Then of course there is the Diamond skull ‘For the love of God’ (2007). A cast of a small human skull covered in real diamonds and reportedly worth 50 million quid. You have to queue up to see it sparkling in its darkened velvet lined box. The young artist who started out with so much promise has become the purveyor of expensive fancy goods and novelty items for the mega- rich.
This exhibition is not helpful to Damian Hirst’s reputation. It does him no favours. The rooms are crowded, the work badly shown and selected. He is at is best when he employs shock tactics and grand statements and a more careful selection of work would have shown him to be a better artist. Where is the Disciple series for example or the large vitrines that pays homage’s to his idol Francis Bacon? Instead it shows how his best work was done at the beginning of his career and then through repetition and over production for the market place, how he became the world richest artist. Meanwhile prepare to stand in line pay your money or book your tickets in advance for this flawed but must see car crash of a show.